The Food-Health Care Link

This morning I once again had the opportunity to invoke Berberich’s Law:

Berberich's Law: Given enough time, someone on the internet will do it for you.

Not only did someone write the blog post I meant to write a month ago on the seldom mentioned relationship between health care and what we eat I, but it showed up as an op-ed in the New York Times by Michael Pollan. An excerpt:

No one disputes that the $2.3 trillion we devote to the health care industry is often spent unwisely, but the fact that the United States spends twice as much per person as most European countries on health care can be substantially explained, as a study released last month says, by our being fatter. Even the most efficient health care system that the administration could hope to devise would still confront a rising tide of chronic disease linked to diet.

That’s why our success in bringing health care costs under control ultimately depends on whether Washington can summon the political will to take on and reform a second, even more powerful industry: the food industry.

The ubiquitous availability of cheap calories is probably the major factor in this country’s obesity epidemic. Trace that back to its root cause, and you’ll end up at farm policies enacted by the Nixon administration that poured agriculture subsidies into commodities in order to drive down the price of food. Those policies worked, and ever since, we’ve been awash in an ocean of processed foods based on corn, soybeans, and wheat.

According to the Environmental Working Group’s Farm Subsidy Database, here is the breakdown of farm subsidies by program for the years 1995-2006:

Rank Program Number of Recipients
1995-2006
Subsidy Total
1995-2006
1 Corn Subsidies 1,568,095 $56,170,875,257
2 Wheat Subsidies 1,308,268 $22,051,566,200
3 Cotton Subsidies 247,879 $21,329,862,262
4 Conservation Reserve Program 768,180 $20,337,282,263
5 Disaster Payments 1,246,432 $15,114,518,393
6 Soybean Subsidies 985,712 $14,239,702,740
7 Rice Subsidies 65,533 $11,043,795,298
8 Sorghum Subsidies 586,766 $4,569,912,363
9 Dairy Program Subsidies 151,737 $3,560,356,847
10 Livestock Subsidies 754,842 $2,908,502,988
11 Peanut Subsidies 89,463 $2,609,286,072
12 Barley Subsidies 337,812 $1,962,025,270
13 Env. Quality Incentive Program 115,206 $943,955,199
14 Tobacco Subsidies 383,889 $530,488,022
15 Sunflower Subsidies 57,976 $461,135,751
16 Apple Subsidies 8,586 $261,540,987
17 Sugar Beet Subsidies 9,071 $242,064,005
18 Canola Subsidies 19,390 $200,281,433
19 Oat Subsidies 620,641 $198,255,252
20 Wool Subsidies 73,277 $185,590,080

As you can see, farmers receive far more money from the government for growing corn than any other crop. And in sustaining this policy, American citizens are artificially driving down the price of processed foods to the point where a fast food hamburger is cheaper than a pound of fresh vegetables. No wonder Americans gain so much weight.

Although the link between the food we eat and obesity and chronic disease is rarely mentioned in the debate over health care reform, Pollan seems optimistic about the impact it might have (if something eventually gets passed in Congress):

The moment these new rules [standard levels of coverage, the elimination of pre-existing conditions] take effect, health insurance companies will promptly discover they have a powerful interest in reducing rates of obesity and chronic diseases linked to diet. A patient with Type 2 diabetes incurs additional health care costs of more than $6,600 a year; over a lifetime, that can come to more than $400,000. Insurers will quickly figure out that every case of Type 2 diabetes they can prevent adds $400,000 to their bottom line. Suddenly, every can of soda or Happy Meal or chicken nugget on a school lunch menu will look like a threat to future profits.

When health insurers can no longer evade much of the cost of treating the collateral damage of the American diet, the movement to reform the food system — everything from farm policy to food marketing and school lunches — will acquire a powerful and wealthy ally, something it hasn’t really ever had before.

I hope he’s right. If this country were able to achieve real farm policy reform, it could have a huge positive impact on the health of our country. Looking back at the table from above, if we eliminated only subsidies for corn, wheat, and soybeans, we could easily pay for the entire 10-year cost of the health care reform bill proposed by the President. And if these commodities were no longer fictitiously priced, the option of growing real food may suddenly become a lot more attractive and profitable.

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